Written by Max Sharp.
The long-awaited day has arrived. World Rugby have cleared Folau Fakatava as eligible for the All Blacks, despite changes to their laws. World Rugby has amended their residency qualification to be five years long, while back in 2021, it was three years long.
Such a law change means players born overseas, such as Nepo Lauala or Shannon Frizell, must wait now until their 23rd birthday to represent the All Blacks, if not selected for an age-grade level. However, the World Rugby birthright amendment has now made it so that players can re-gain eligibility for a nation they were born in, or have ancestry from. Examples of possible cases in which this will happen, could mean Julian Savea represents Samoa; as his parents were born there, while Israel Folau and Makalai Fekitoa are eligible for Tonga.
While Folau Fakatava remains eligible for Tonga, he may play for them three years after his final All Blacks test. The fact that World Rugby have cleared Fakatava to play, means that Ian Foster was without a question, wanting to select the halfback for the All Blacks in 2021, prior to his torn ACL in a game against the Crusaders.
As World Rugby have permitted Foster to pick Fakatava, we will need to look into what this means for the All Blacks' pecking order at halfback, by analysing the performances of Foster's potential halfback picks, in 2022.
The All Blacks' Halfback Depth Chart (2020-21).
Summary of Fakatava's 2022 Season:
While the addition of the 22-year-old Fakatava to the All Blacks squad, would create space on the depth chart with him as the fifth player with minutes on Foster's pecking order; he has been playing well enough to justify selection.
Fakatava has scored 4 tries in 2022, while he is 40th in the league for clean breaks, also with 4, despite averaging just 24.5 minutes per match after 12 appearances for the Highlanders. Fakatava also averages 29 passes per match and ranks 10th in the league for most offloads, with 12 offloads for the season.
While Fakatava has a slightly below-average tackle percentage for the season of 74% (28/38 tackles), his ability to win turnovers is pretty good for a halfback. He's still a young man, so this tackle percentage is fixable, game time against fellow tier 1 nations would see Fakatava improve even more.
Though Christie can perhaps thank Fakatava's injury for his test debut in 2021, the 26-year-old has evolved into a far better player than he ever was. The Blues' first-choice halfback came across a bit hot-headed in his time with the Chiefs and Hurricanes, but has become a calming tactician who keeps his discipline from 9.
Finlay Christie training for the Blues in 2021. Photo: Max Sharp.
Christie has played 9 games for the Blues in 2022, so has run fewer metres than Fakatava's 184, with 114 for himself. Fakatava also beats Christie in every other attacking statistic with the exception of try assists, while Christie also has a lower tackle percentage for the season with 73% (37/51 tackles).
Don't let the stats confuse you though, because Christie, fifth in the league for passes (471 total) is in career-best form. Christie is whipping up ball so quick for the Blues that it would likely get a speeding ticket in central Auckland. Whatever Christie lacks in stats, is made up for in tactical usage.
Weber is third on the depth chart with 17.5% of the minutes and has recently returned to playing after missing game time with a shoulder injury. This has allowed for the development of Cortez Ratima and Xavier Roe to accelerate, though Weber has played well in every game except for his most recent one.
Brad Weber, warming up for the Chiefs in 2022. Photo: Max Sharp.
Though being a 31-year-old third-choice player could signal a potential dropping of Weber to some casual observers, the stats say otherwise. When push came to shove last season, Weber was picked for the important games ahead of TJ Perenara, as he is seen as the closest like-for-like replacement of Aaron Smith; Weber started against Australia in Perth, started in the second test against South Africa for 2021 and then, perhaps most crucially, Weber was named to play off the bench to replace Smith against France, the minute he had recovered from a concussion. Perhaps, Weber would have started against Ireland too?
Weber has produced good stats for the Chiefs in 2022 as well, with 6 defenders beaten, 3 offloads and an astounding tackle percentage for the season, for someone of his 75kg size. Weber has completed 33/37 tackles for a rate of 89%; despite attempting more than Perenara in 2022. The one concern is that Weber's made just 2 try assists.
His test career is, barring injury to another player, over. That may sound like a huge call, but it probably isn't. The All Blacks have not needed to axe a player so desperately, since John Mitchell finally dropped Christian Cullen for a superior defender in the form of Mils Muliaina.
Ian Foster has been the All Blacks' Head Coach for 1680 minutes' worth of test rugby (21 tests), so none of these halfbacks apart from Aaron Smith, the first-choice, are immune from being dropped. Four players (Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Ardie Savea and Sam Whitelock) have played over 1000 minutes for Foster, so the loss of Perenara's 556 minutes from 2020-21 won't hurt ridiculously.
TJ Perenara runs in to score a try for the Hurricanes. Photo: Max Sharp.
The reason Perenara's test career looks to be coming to a close, is because not only has he produced very slow passing in Super Rugby, having done the same in tests during 2020 and 2021, but he has also produced lacklustre statistics. He has completed 23/33 tackle attempts in 2022, for a season total of just 70%, while he has made just 1 try assist. With the exception of tries, clean breaks and metres run, Perenara has been beaten by every other halfback on each publicly available-to-view statistic in 2022.
This does not bode well for Perenara. His 78 caps could perhaps, be a saving grace.
The Highlanders captain hasn't exactly had a good season for his Super Rugby club in 2022, but has established himself as a proven performer after 102 tests and also the largest share of the halfback depth chart, so should come right for the mid-year tests.
Dropping the player with the most minutes in a jersey which is a part of the rugby team's spine, is an unwise move; this is why we saw Ben Smith play well past the best of his career and attend the 2019 Rugby World Cup as a backup option for Beauden Barrett.
Smith's own running game, has been far worse than expected, while he has made just 2 offloads. He has however, distributed 7 try assists in 11 games and ranks 2nd in the league for most passes (534 total). Barring injury, Smith will remain a regular started for Ian Foster's All Blacks until the end of his contract in 2023 - which will likely see him retire.
Fakatava and Smith are guaranteed to be selected; Foster wouldn't have the NZRU and World Rugby have such high-profile meetings for no reason.
This means only one out of Christie, Weber and Perenara, will survive the chopping block; coaches only tend to select 3 halfbacks for initial squads.
I believe Ian Foster is likely to axe Christie; due to Weber's style of play resembling Smith's so closely. If Foster retains Weber while dropping Christie and Perenara; he is losing fewer minutes on his depth chart. If injury does happen, we all know Christie will be called on immediately due to the supreme form he's in.
Ian Foster's likely picks at halfback: Aaron Smith (33 years old, 102 caps), Brad Weber (31 years old, 17 caps), Folau Fakatava (22 years old, uncapped)